Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It Wasn't About the Fireworks

As I was writing my most recent blog post, I was under no false illusion that my partner and I were in the right to be trespassing on private property.  I didn't even totally disagree with people's comments on the post, even though some of them seemed unnecessarily harsh to this delicate Canadian.  And yet, I was angry.  I was angry when I wrote the blog post, and angry when I reflected back on it.  Almost inexplicably so.

And then it finally occurred to me.  What I was feeling really had nothing to do with the woman who yelled at us.  Sure, it wasn't the nicest or most neighbourly of things for her to do, but she may have had her reasons for doing it.  Maybe her property gets destroyed by drunken yahoos every Canada Day and she's sick and tired of it.  What do I know?  The real reason that I was so upset about the whole incident was that, to me, it was reflective of a much greater greed that seems to be pervasive in our society.

I believe pretty strongly that personal wealth is partly the result of an individual's hard work, but it is also almost always the result of a tremendous amount of privilege.  In my own case, I had to work my ass off for years to become a physician, but I was helped a lot in the process by living in a safe country, by having access to a good public education system, by being born into a stable and supportive family, and by having the physical and intellectual ability to survive medical training*.  In other words, I was lucky.  And I believe that anyone who is as lucky as I have been should do what they can to share some of their good luck with others.

But unfortunately, a lot of wealthy people don't feel that way.  They feel that they're entitled to hoard their wealth, even when they have far more of it than they could use in many lifetimes over.  Republicans think it's okay to cut health care coverage for the poor as long as it lowers their own premiums.  The Walton family sits on many billions of dollars and gives almost nothing away.  And on and on.

It angers and saddens me to no end.  Because this "every man for himself" mentality doesn't make for good community or for a good world.  And it isn't the way that I want things to be.  So sometimes I get frustrated by it all and get mad at people for not wanting me to sit in their field.

(This is not as articulate a post as I would like it to be, but in the interest of getting something out there and getting past this event, I'm going to hit publish.  Please feel free to gently and kindly share your thoughts in the comments.  This is probably an idea that I'll revisit in the future, hopefully in a more completely thought out way.)

*To give but a few examples.  I could add in many more, such as the fact that I grew up middle class, that I'm not a visible minority, that women are more widely accepted in medicine than they were a generation or two ago, etc.  You get the idea.  Privilege

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Greedy Rich People

For the Canada Day long weekend, M and I left the city to camp in front of a lake for three nights.  It was an amazing escape, complete with star-filled skies, late evenings in front of the campfire, and tasty but not-so-healthy camping food.  I felt more relaxed than I have in months, and I constantly found myself saying that I didn't want to go home (and particularly not back to work).

We had planned to completely avoid the Canada Day celebrations, as we both had some reservations about celebrating 150 years of colonization and abuse of indigenous peoples, but while stopping for gas we heard about "the best small town fireworks show in the province" from the sales clerk, and we decided to go.  So on Saturday night, we left our refuge in the woods for the relative civilization of a town of 1,000 people.

When we arrived in town, there was a small area by the waterfront that had been designated the fireworks viewing area.  It seemed that all 1,000 townspeople had come out for the celebration, as there wasn't an inch of available space on which to sit or stand.  So we walked down the street until we found a lovely grassy area on which many people had set up blankets to watch the show.

Unfortunately, the area had been blocked off with orange plastic fencing; however, there was a steady stream of people walking under the fencing, so we followed suit.  We found a great spot on the grass with a clear view of the water, and we settled in to watch the show. 

And then, an angry woman came over and started yelling at us.

"This is private property!  What are you doing here?"

We were a bit surprised, as there were easily hundreds of other people lying on the ground, so we explained to her that we were looking for a place to watch the fireworks and had simply followed other people into the area.

"Well!  It's private property!  You can't stay here!  You have to leave!"

Now...I understand that no one wants their property trespassed on, and I do recognize that we were trespassing. was an enormous field that easily could have accommodated many more people than were sitting on it.  The woman who was yelling at us was part of a group having a large bonfire, and they were taking up only a very small portion of the grass closest to the fireworks, so the people watching the show were not impinging on their space in any way.  And the people who had come for the show were sitting quite peacefully, not appearing to be disruptive or damaging to anything.

And yet, this woman didn't want any of us there.  Because it was part of her property, and heaven forbid someone else enjoy something to which they aren't entitled.

Which I completely don't understand.  If I have something that I'm not using, such as a giant piece of land that is too large for myself and my small group of friends, I would happily let someone else use it.  This woman and her group could easily have let us all sit and watch the show, at no harm to them.  If they'd been concerned about crowd control, perhaps they could have negotiated with the town to block off a portion of the property for the public, so that the space could have been enjoyed by everyone while still "protecting" the group who owns it.

But no.  It was her property, and she didn't want anyone else to enjoy it.

Fitting metaphor for the celebration of 150 years of colonization.

Am I wrong about this?  I was and still am horrified by the way that this woman treated us (and many other people who had come to watch the fireworks).  The pure selfishness of it offends me so much.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

One Year in the Black

It has been just over one year since I reached a net worth of zero.  After being in debt for almost ten years, it has been a welcome change to open the Excel file in which I track everything financial and see that my investments finally exceed the balance on my line of credit.

As a medical student and resident, I hadn't thought much about finances.  I was surrounded by people who came from wealthy families, and it didn't take me long to adopt their spendy habits and to accumulate a lot of debt.  I reassured myself that "everyone was doing it" and that the debt was okay, because it would be easily repayed once I became a physician and started getting paid in bags full of money.  I rarely looked at the balance of my line of credit, and whenever I did it was just a quick glance, followed by a nervous chuckle at the ridiculousness of owing the bank such an enormous sum.

It wasn't until my last year of fellowship that I actually woke up to the reality of how much money I owed and started doing something about it.  I went on a budget, and I actually started spending less than I was earning for the first time in eight years.  I didn't save a lot of money in that year, as it was a major adjustment just to start living within my means, but at the very least I laid some groundwork for financial responsibility as an attending.

And then I finished training!  And got an adult job!  And suddenly there was a lot of extra money to put towards savings and debt repayment.  Every day that I worked, I got a little bit closer to the longed for balance of zero.  And yet, my anxiety about money actually got worse.  When my line of credit was ridiculously big, I comforted myself by saying that I could declare bankruptcy if I ever lost my job*, because there was no way I could pay it back on anything other than a physician's salary.  As it got smaller, and my investments bigger, I suddenly entered territory where I would be expected to pay back my loans, regardless of whether I could continue to work as a physician.  And the idea of earning a non-physicians salary but still being $50,000 or $60,000 in debt was terrifying.

Thankfully, I have kept my job, and after ten months of working and saving I got myself back into the black.  I expected that the anxiety about money would resolve instantaneously after achieving that milestone, but oddly enough I didn't take a lot of comfort in being a 39-year old with a net worth of zero.  I still felt vulnerable to the possibility of becoming disabled** or burning out of my career and not having enough money to have good options.  So I kept saving and repaying debt and watching my net worth get healthier and healthier.

In the past year, I've increased my net worth by enough that I could live at my current standard of living for about three years.  While I hesitate to share actual numbers here, I will say that my net work growth breaks down roughly as follows:  10% from growth on investments; 10% line of credit repayment; 30% cash savings (for a down payment on our first home); and 50% long-term savings (RRSPs and a TFSA to minimize taxes). 

My savings vary a lot from month to month, due to a fluctuating call schedule and taking time off work for vacations and conferences, but the overall trajectory of my net worth has been pleasantly positive.  And finally...FINALLY...I am starting to relax a little.  It is comforting to know that I could become disabled and live comfortably off my disability insurance payments.  Or I could burn out from medicine and pursue a different career, and I would be absolutely fine.  For the first time in a decade, I feel like I have some real security and real options.  I'm still a long way from financial independence, but at least I'm sleeping more peacefully at night.

*I only had private student loans, so I think they would have been cancelled out by a bankruptcy.  But don't quote me on that.  And don't be an idiot like me and think that bankruptcy is a good financial strategy!

**Yes, I have disability insurance.  As should every physician.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Retiring To, Instead of From

One of the nurses I work with in my inner city clinic retired last week.  I'm in a bit of denial about the whole situation, as she takes with her over thirty years of relationships with patients and experience in the community, and it is going to be a terrible, horrible adjustment to run the clinic without her.  It's a bit like a body trying to function after a left main occlusion has knocked out most of the heart.  Still possible (hopefully), but irreversibly impaired.

I've known that her retirement was coming for most of this year, so there has been plenty of opportunity to prepare for the transition and to hire a replacement.  Fortunately, we've managed to poach a really excellent and experienced nurse from another physician who practices in the same field (sorry colleague!), so the new nurse will be about as good as possible for a replacement.  I've also had some time to mentally prepare myself for the change, although I haven't done as much as I probably should have (see above statement re: "bit of denial").

Interestingly, from talking with the nurse who is leaving, it doesn't seem that she's done that much mental preparation for her retirement either.  She seems to be very financially prepared - house paid off, full defined pension from over 30 years of service, personal savings beyond the pension - but she seems to have very little idea of what she's going to do with herself after working her last shift.  When asked about her plans, she will say "Well....I have a lot of sewing I'd like to do".

She's not even 60!  And she's been working full-time in a busy, stressful, and emotionally challenging medical practice.  How does one transition from that to a life of doing "a lot of sewing"? 

I worry about her, a little bit, at the same time as I am insanely jealous of anyone who has managed to permanently free herself from the need for full-time employment.  I wonder if this incredible opportunity she has to explore new interests and do anything she wants to is going to feel like a disappointment, because she hasn't taken the time to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. 

If I continue at my current savings rate, and there are no major economic collapses in the near future, then I'm on track to be able to retire in about nine years.  And while I try not to focus on retirement and to live in the present moment as much as possible, you can bet there is part of me that is always dreaming about what I will be able to do in the post-employement stage of life.  There will, of course, be many books to read, and as many places to travel as we can afford.  But there will also be volunteer work, and community involvement, and learning to speak a second language, and writing, and so many other things.  I will probably be busier in retirement than I am in my working life, because I will be able to choose to do whatever excites me most instead of doing things I don't love out of necessity.  (Hint:  It will not include dictating clinic letters.)

When I retire, it won't be just because I've saved up enough money and that's what people do as soon as they can afford to.  It will be because whatever I have planned next is even better than the crazy but wonderful world of medicine.

On a completely unrelated note, if you like cats at all, then you should really find a way to see the documentary Kedi, which is about the street cats of Istanbul.  It is beautiful and touching and funny and filled with cats, which makes anything in life better.  M and I saw it yesterday, and even she, the intransigent dog lover, thought it was worth watching.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

How To Be Less Stabby While On Call

As a resident, I couldn't wait for the day that I would be an attending and would get to do fewer call shifts.  In my last two years of residency, I did 130 days of call per year, while as an attending I do about 70 days per year.  I anticipated that my attending schedule would feel positively luxurious by comparison, but of course, as with many things in life, that hasn't been the case.  Somehow doing less call makes me less accustomed to it and even more resentful of it when I'm in the midst of it.

Generally, I spend my weeks on call in a self-indulgent funk.  I whine about how busy I am and how long the days are; I neglect anything that isn't work-related (thank all that is holy for housekeepers); and I live off of all the foods that I tell my patients to never eat.  I'm about as miserable and self-pitying as an adult can acceptably be.  Possibly more so.
This call period, however, things seem to have shifted, if only the slightest bit.  I hate my life a little less than normal.  My smiles for patients and co-workers are a little more sincere.  I spread a little less misery everywhere I go.

Being caught up on everything at the start of the call period has probably been the biggest contributor to my slightly less horrible than usual mood.  My state of being on top of things lasted for all of one day after I started call, but at the very least I've only had to scramble to keep up with the additional work of call*, rather than struggling not to drown under call work and leftover work from the weeks before.  There is comfort in knowing that, at the absolute worst, I'm no more than two weeks behind on things.

The slight reduction in overwhelm at work has carried over into not feeling like I want to die when I get home, which in turn has led to me actually doing productive things in the evening.  Where normally I would binge watch Gilmore Girls with a peanut butter chocolate Drumstick** in my hand, I've actually gone for walks to enjoy the beautiful Spring weather.  I've done dishes.  I've paid bills.  I'm actually adulting!
Maybe forty will be the year that I actually grow up?

*Unsuccessfully, of course.

**Immediately after writing this I ate a peanut butter chocolate Drumstick.  Because I'm only human.  I would've turned on Gilmore Girls, but the girlfriend isn't home, and I think watching our show without her is probably grounds for divorce.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parkinson's Law

Subtitle:  Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Just over a year ago, I wrote smugly about how I had gotten caught up on all of my tasks at work and about how wonderful it felt.  At the time, I fully intended to keep up with everything, always and forever, so as to keep the wonderful feeling going.

I think I may have lasted a month.

Inevitably, I got behind during a busy time at work, and then I never seemed to have enough time or motivation to get caught up again.  So for most of the past year, I've left work every day knowing that there were piles of charts and long to-do lists waiting for me the next morning.

For me, the worst part about never being caught up isn't the overwhelming feeling of always having too much to do:  it's the terrible lethargy that comes from doing the same thing over and over again without seeing any progress.  There is nothing quite as demotivating as signing off on a letter, only to be greeted by 50 other letters that need signing off.  For the past year, work has felt like a neverending slog through the same neverending tasks.  Day after day after day.

A few weeks ago, I had a brief but welcome break from the teaching and presenting and administrative duties that fill my non-clinical time.  And I thought to myself "Now!  Now is the time to get caught up again."  So I took the extra time I had and phoned every last patient and dictated every letter and signed off on every chart.  For the first time in way too long, I was caught up.

And I've stayed that way for the past three weeks.  And once again, it has felt amazing.  I feel a little burst of joy every time I open my letter queue and see the words "You have no new letters to sign off".  Or when I look at my empty inbox.  Or when I look at the folders in my desk, and there's absolutely nothing in them.

The second best part of being caught up is that I've regained the efficiency that I had lost.  When I have just a few tasks to do, I can plow through them quickly, knowing that I'm going to get the satisfaction of being done, once again.  And it's much easier to let go of my relentless perfectionism when I know that it's standing between me and being caught up on everything.

The absolute best part?  I get a bonus day off today because I'm done everything!  I was finishing up my tasks yesterday, and I realized that there wasn't anything that needed to be done today, so I didn't have to come in for my usual catch up day in the office.  No dreaded Thursday paperwork day.  I've taken my car in to get the winter tires removed (just a wee bit late), gotten a haircut for the first time in eight months, and now written a blog post.  Next is lunch and then reading for fun.

Life, for this moment at least, is good.

(If you are hating me and my smugness right now, please note two things:  1)  I start two weeks of call on Monday, which is going to destroy everything I just wrote about; and 2) When I say I'm "done everything", I am ignoring the paper I need to write and the CV I need to update and a number of other longer-term tasks that will forever be on my to-do list.  No matter how efficiently I work or how late I stay, there will always be something left to do.)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The End of the Thirties

When I was a few months into dating my girlfriend, we celebrated her birthday together for the first time.  For me, birthdays have always a pretty understated affair, marked by a single special dinner and maybe a cake.  Not so for my girlfriend.  For her, birthdays are an event...or more accurately multiple events involving as many different activities and as many people as possible.  I was somewhat stunned that first year by the number of celebrations that a single person could have in honour of her birthday.

It took me a few years to realize that this was something that I could use to my advantage, but now that I'm three years into the relationship and a few days away from my fortieth birthday, I know to milk it for all it's worth.  I'm not having a single birthday this year; I'm having a birthday month.  Dinner with friends, dinner with both sides of the family, an Escape Room with other friends*, and birthday tapas with the girlfriend.  I will be celebrated!

And, inevitably, I will be a bit melancholy.  Because there is something about turning forty that feels...old.  Forty marks the end of the decade in which I went through medical school, residency, and fellowship.  It marks the end of the decade in which my father died.  It appears to mark the end of my single life and of dating new people**.  Realistically, it probably marks the end of any chance that I will have a biological child.  While I am hopeful for good things in the upcoming decade, I can't help but feel a bit wistful for the things being left in my thirties.

How does one let go of so many things that made them who they are?

*Have you ever done an Escape Room?  Puzzles and friendly competition all in one?  Yes!  Love them.

**If my girlfriend reads this, which she only seems to do when I write something she would find remotely bothersome, I can just hear her saying "Appears to?  What does 'appears to' mean???"